A Pap smear is a routine screening that checks for signs of cervical cancer. An abnormal Pap smear does not mean a woman has cervical cancer, but rather, that abnormal cells have been detected. These cells could be the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV), inflammation, or only a yeast infection. Typically, further testing is needed if a Pap test comes back with abnormal results. These tests could include a colposcopy or a cervical biopsy.
The need for colposcopy or biopsy
A colposcopy is a test that is typically performed after an abnormal Pap. The two tests are similar in nature, however, the biggest difference is that a colposcopy also uses a magnifying instrument to help the physician get a closer look. Colposcopies may also be done if a woman has unexplained irregular bleeding or to diagnose cervical cancer. Cervical biopsies are slightly more invasive than Pap tests or colposcopies and involve a small excision of tissue for further testing.
Experts recommend that women who are sexually active or over the age of 21 get Pap tests done every 3 years. After the age of 30, some women may opt to have these tests done every 5 years in conjunction with HPV screenings. If a woman has an abnormal Pap smear, has a weakened immune system, or a history of smoking, an OB/GYN may recommend having these screenings performed more often. Women can work with a healthcare provider on a one-on-one basis to decide how often Pap smears should be completed.
Preventing cervical cancer
Having regular Pap tests is a proven way to detect cervical cancer early and possibly even avoid the disease altogether. Most cases of invasive cervical cancer occur in women who have not had routine screenings. Additionally, preventing HPV is key to preventing cervical cancer. While HPV is very common, limiting the number of sexual partners, using condoms, and getting vaccinated are all proven ways to decrease the risk of HPV infection.
Be honest with your healthcare provider
Pap smears, colposcopies, and screenings for cervical cancer are not the most comfortable topics to discuss. However, catching any abnormal signs early is key to preventing cervical cancer. Speak to a healthcare provider about any irregularities or abnormal signs, including discomfort or abnormal bleeding. Women should consult with a healthcare provider on an individual basis regarding how often to get Pap tests and how to prevent cervical cancer.